The earliest example of shaky-cam I can remember comes in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). Kubrick was known as filmmaker married to smooth, steady camerawork, using long takes, wide, deep compositions and slow, clean, traveling movements. So when he used the hand-held to emphasize the chaos of combat in Dr. Strangelove, it was an innovation. The scene has two important attributes: it's still recorded in long takes, so the viewer has a relatively good idea what's going on, but more importantly, in this particular scene, in this particular movie, it doesn't matter exactly what's going on. Only the larger concept of the fracas itself matters.
Today, just about every other Hollywood film uses shaky-cam, though European filmmakers generally prefer longer takes and less shaking. Since cameras get lighter and easier to use every year, it makes sense. With hand-held, it takes much less time to set up a shot. No more laying down track or mapping out every inch of camera movement. But hand-held has been quickly abused, and it's almost always used wrong. Bay's Transformers is a particularly heinous example. Each time a transformer switches from car to robot, Bay moves his camera right up to the action, as if it's taking place mere inches from our faces. Since the robots are several stories high, this is painfully disorienting. It's like trying to view the Empire State Building by waving a camera in front of a few bricks. Moreover, a filmmaker friend told me that, because the robots were created with CGI, Bay probably added his shaking camera after principal photography, with computers.
Zombie's Halloween should offer a pretty cut-and-dried case study. For dialogue sequences, Zombie keeps the camera fairly still, but when Michael Myers attacks, he begins jerking and lurching around. This does not emphasize the terror. It's more like riding a roller coaster and anticipating a ten-story drop before suddenly finding yourself thrown from the ride. Compare this to John Carpenter's masterful original, which was also filmed handheld, but via long, graceful, gliding Steadicam shots. Part of the problem with most shaky-cam work is that the director is forced to cut it together very quickly to hide the fact that very little is actually visible.
In my book, Ratner's crimes are a good deal worse. Ratner had the opportunity to direct Jackie Chan in his first big Hollywood-financed film. Chan is an exceptionally skilled martial artist. He choreographs his stunts and moves at lightning speed and razor precision. He has even established an emotional logic for his stunts, and he's a fairly good director himself, having made more films in Hong Kong than Ratner has here. Chan's method, and indeed the method of most Hong Kong filmmakers, is to choreograph the action first, then film it clearly without getting the camera in the way. Instead, in all three Rush Hour films, Ratner shakes the camera around and butchers everything Chan does. Nearly every martial arts star working in Hollywood has suffered the same problem, while -- ironically -- the talented Hong Kong directors, who know how to photograph action, have ended up making "B" movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
When we humans walk down the street, our heads and eyes bob up and down. But our brains automatically adjust so that our vision remains constant and smooth. If you're walking along a sidewalk and your gaze fixes on a car parked at the end of the block, the car does not jerk up and down. So when a filmmaker runs through the forest carrying the camera and filming the running movement, he's not actually capturing the feel of running. He's capturing chaos. The idea of making a movie is to get into the audience's heads. So by filming smoothly and cutting when necessary -- like the blinking of an eye -- the action should be closer to what everyone can relate to. Brad Bird's Ratatouille (393 screens) offers an excellent example of this. When his rat hero Remy explores the kitchen of the restaurant, Bird's "camera" swoops around the room at top speed, but it never loses the concept of the room. We're always aware of the room and our place in it.
That's the key: space. Even though Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum is filmed entirely with shaky-cam, the space is always clear. The old-time Hollywood action directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh understood this instinctively. Let the audience see. Most of today's "action" directors, I suspect, very simply don't understand action, so they use the shaky-cam as a way to hide their ineptitude. The lack of action and choreography is covered up in the sludge of fast film and fast editing. What's even more perplexing is that nobody ever seems to notice or complain. (One of the most poorly made movies of all time, Gladiator, actually won a Best Picture Oscar.) Audiences are apparently used to shoddy work and wouldn't know good work if it bit them. We deserve better than what we're getting. All it takes is a taste of the good stuff before the bitterness of the bad stuff comes out.